Tuesday, 8 March 2016

A Rough Guide to Climbing at Dover

A Silly Game

Esoteric... intimidating... worrying... exhausting... are some of the words that I would best describe climbing on the white cliffs at Dover. It's one of the most unique and memorable places that I have climbed at and somewhere that has filled me with equal measures of dread and ambition. The style of climbing is far from perfect but it is partly the imperfections combined with the unique experiences and high levels of adventure that kept me returning.What's more the journey time of under two hours from my former London home made the area positively 'local' by London standards.

Mick Fowler's exploits were one of the main catalysts to me trying chalk climbing. I visited Saltdean a few times to climb the bolted chalk routes at Saltdean but was keen for bigger adventures away from in situ protection. An excellent article on Dover by Ian Parnell in Climb Magazine further raised my interest in the purely trad form, particularly in a route called The Tube, which followed a man-made runnel up the cliff. I was lacking partners for such a mission but fortunately somebody was silly enough to reply to a speculative post for a partner on UKC. I climbed most of the route in the dark, without a head torch, having grossly underestimated the time required. Midway up the runnel my ice axes pinged off what felt like a large sheet of metal wedged in the back of it. Carefully I bridged the steep walls of the runnel on either side of it until it was mounted. I was learning many of the intricacies of this climbing style entirely on the sharp end. Then on the way home I crashed the car out of exhaustion, burning a few of my lives in the process.

Beneath The Tube

I made eight visits to Dover in total, climbing a new route on the last occasion. Despite this respectable haul, I felt as though I had barely scratched the surface. Indeed it had taken almost this many visits to gain a sense of whereabouts, with some large sections of cliff still a mystery to me. Partly this was due the scale of the cliffs and partly because many routes had changed or had fallen down in relation the route descriptions that I was following.

Beyond Dover, I also climbed five of the unbolted lines at Saltdean. Somewhere more traditionally know for 'sport chalk' style routes, with in situ protection and lower-offs. Thirteen routes in total isn't a huge haul but it's probably thirteen more than most people and hopefully I've gained enough experiences to have something to share.

An excellent route called Relax at Saltdean

Climbing Style

The style is typically compared to ice climbing, except with protection from the 1970s. The cliffs naturally provide a unique atmosphere as you would expect with climbing on the south face of Kent. The sound of waves, seagulls and ferry horns suggest a positively friendly ambience compared to an average day in the Scottish hills but in reality Dover can feel more intimidating than probably any venue in the UK. The softer featureless chalk at Dover makes climbing with axes the most effective method, however the natural erosion of the cliffs far exceeds the impact of a very few ice climbers. Other areas such as Beachy Head and the Needles are better suited to conventional rock climbing techniques because the rock is harder, although I've no experience with these areas.

Climbing at Dover can be far more physical than climbing even the hardest ice. It often needs many more swings to gain sufficient purchase and the protection can be long-winded and tiring to place. Seconding requires less effect because the axe placements have been created, although removing the gear is still no easy task. It's generally been considered ethical to rest on axes in order to free up both hands to hammer the protection. This essentially means that resting is permitted under the guise of placing protection, although nothing about chalk climbing should really described as restful! Progress up a route can feel a hard fought affair and far more protracted than might be anticipated. The first ascent of South Face of Kent took three days for example, and first ascent of The Great White Freight took two days. Ian Parnell I know has tried to climb routes completely free but other semi-recent ascents I am not sure about. Some would say Dover is good training for hard winter climbs elsewhere, however this relies on a strong mind from the outset.

After dark climbing on Dover Soul with much of the crux climbing still to come 

Routes mainly follow steep walls, buttresses and corners, interspersed with slabbier sections, where the chalk is softer, looser and more vegetated. The cliffs are deceptively steep. What looks vertical from the ground can in fact often be overhanging at close quarters. Particular at the top of the cliffs, where routes are often at their steepest.

The chalk at Dover also contains bands of flint. The temptation can be to hook on protruding pieces in order to save energy with placements, but be warned, these often easily break loose without warning when weighted. They are at best untrustworthy.

Vegetated easy ground on The Real White Cliffs Experience

Chalk Characteristics

Loose, crumbly, brittle and unpredictable are probably most people's perceptions of chalk. Prone to falling down without warning, and lacking adequate protection. School blackboard chalk snapped with ease I remember. Chalk can be all these things but it can also be remarkably dense and homogeneous and harder to impale than the hardest ice. The chalk at Dover and Saltdean is often excellent but there are of course many chossy chalk quarries in the UK at the opposite end of the scale. I never fully understood the varying characteristics of chalk beyond simple observations, and what I observed fluctuated greatly.

As with ice, chalk is strongest when compact and featureless, and it is less prone to cracking or dinner plating where surfaces are convex. Cracks in chalk generally indicate weakness and sometimes even risk of collapse and therefore are best avoided. Such cracks are few and far between though. Gentle-angled chalk is usually softer and looser, sometimes with a grassy, earthy top layer. Presumably due to receiving more rainfall. It's easy to climb but the protection is often weaker. Steep chalk is a much harder density, and so better to protect but harder to climb. I've found some steep ground to be brittle and subject to comical levels of dinner-plating but cannot explain the reason for this, although generally it's been a localised problem.

The large cracks in this picture indicate local imminent collapse

Close to the water's edge the chalk is often soft and easy to penetrate with axes. Higher up the cliffs the chalk becomes drier and harder, often needing multiple swings in order to gain reliable purchase. Six swings is not uncommon. This can make for some very pumpy climbing, whoever you are. How much moderate rainfall affects the rock's hardness and difficulty to climb I am not sure, but extended periods of dry weather certainly makes the rock harder.

Chalk's porous nature means that large levels of rainfall can affect the general stability of the cliffs by increasing structural load. I made a habit to avoid Dover after periods of heavy rain in case of any major collapse. Many of the routes at Saltdean were washed into the English Channel during the appalling winter of 2013/2014 as a consequence of heavy rain and rough seas. During one period I fell off one of the 'sport chalk' routes at Saltdean after a foothold broke unexpectedly, with the preceding piece of in situ gear also ripping. Later that winter the entire route collapsed. It served as a warning to the damagers of heavy rainfall. My second climbed route at Dover, called Loose Living, also collapsed in dramatic style that winter, although it was a pretty terrible route and so no great loss. A chance encounter with a fox midway up the route was the most memorable moment. There were likely other casualties elsewhere.

Loose Living area August 2011
Loose Living area September 2013

I'm no expert how winter frosts affect things. My presumption has been that rain followed by frost leads to water expansion within the chalk and possibly increases the likelihood of collapse, in the similar way to how water pipes can crack. I'd welcome views from anybody more knowledgeable on the subject.


It's fair to say an ample degree of dedication is needed just to build a suitable rack for climbing trad chalk. Warthogs are the only real form of protection. In Scotland I carried one or two but for chalk an equivalent number to ice screws is needed. At currently £28.99 each via Needle Sports this is no light investment. I bought a couple of second-hand warthogs but made only a moderate saving and found their condition often to be substandard. Other forms of rock protection are unsuitable because of the absence of cracks (except where local weakness), and because of the softness of the rock.

Warthogs require a lot of effort to place in chalk and so a hammer with suitable weight in the head is called upon. Don't bother with claw hammers, or anything similar, for this reason. Hammers fitted to ice axes will also be close to useless, made worse by the curved shaft reducing hammer leverage. I bought a 2lb lump hammer from B&Q for about £10, which worked fine. Be sure to drill a hole in the handle so that it can threaded to your harness. I rested it in one of my harness loops. Aid hammers likely work well but I could not see what further benefits would warrant the high price tag.

View to the French coastline

Placement locations follow a similar criteria to screws into ice, in that lack of features makes for stronger placements. Where surfaces are convex or close to prominent edges the chalk is likely to be weaker and more prone to fracture during placement. As with ice screws it's easy to get a feel for the warthog's potential strength during its placement through a combination of feel and observation. The harder it is to place the stronger it will likely be during a fall.

Even with a good hammer it can take a lot of effort to fully sink a warthog. In fact placing warthogs can be more pumpy than the actual climbing. Gripping the hammer with two hands helps matters and for this reason clipping and hanging on axes to place warthogs has been generally considered ethical, as previously mentioned. Sometimes it can take five minutes of heavy handed smacking to sink a warthog, requiring patience and commitment. Removing them on second is no easy task either. I found the best technique was to knock the eye of the warthog a full 360 degrees in order to loosen the shaft slightly. I then to used the axe pick to leverage the warthog out via the eye hole. Hitting them side-to-side like a peg is useless because the chalk just absorbs the impact. It can also lead to warthogs becoming bent if they were not fully sunk in the first place.

Hammering home a warthog

Don't put too much reliance in one warthog. I once made the mistake of running an easy slab out to beneath a steep wall, only to find the chalk quality quickly diminished. I placed some mediocre warthogs in the wall but the more sensible approach would have been to place more protection in advance of the difficulties. I got into this habit with future climbs, which generally made for a happier climber.


Crampons are best set to mono points in order to more easily penetrate the chalk where hard. It also allows for points to be placed in axe placements so as to reduce the workload. Any axe suitable for ice climbing will be suitable for chalk. Sharp points help to more easily punch into chalk but pieces of flint hidden within the cliff can quickly blunt them. In Mick Fowler's era the flint could break a pick, however nowadays picks are suitably strong to avoid needing to carry a spare axe.

Chalk leads to corrosion, therefore all gear needs to be washed thoroughly after use as possible. Clothes often become covered in chalk dust, so this is no place for new expensive new Gore-tex or Softshell. It can sometimes also be difficult to keep boots away from sea water due residual pools remaining after high tide. Generally speaking it's good to use old gear where possible. On the plus side, the south facing aspect often means less layers are needed, although the cliffs naturally catch any wind coming up the channel.

Don't wear your best Gore-tex
White clothes

Wearing protective eye wear, or a visor is recommended as otherwise eyes can become clogged with small particles of chalk. One partner of mine needed to visit A&E after finishing a climb because of the amount of chalk in his eyes. Another parter appeared squint-eyed at the top of route with similar problems. It's more of a problem where the chalk is loose and the wind is breezy.

Hard for the Grade?

The CC Southern Sandstone uses 'ice grades from III to VIII'. Either Roman numerals have been used to unconventionally describe ice grades, or these are in fact Scottish adjective grades. What's more, only The Great White Fright has been graded higher than VI. Possibly there was confusion surrounding its published grade VIII, as Ian Parnell explained on his blog. 'Certainly worth Scottish VIII but definitely not WI8'. Whether this means all the routes at Dover are graded using the Scottish adjective grade, or that all the grades are WI, except The Great White Fright is not clear. The sensible approach is probably to climb a few routes at an amiable grade to get a feel for the grading.

Most of the climbs at Dover have seen few repeats and many have suffered erosion, meaning the original grade is often ballpark. This naturally increases the seriousness of many routes. I'd say it's best to assume changes have taken place, whatever the guidebook states, and allow for suitable headroom accordingly. Otherwise one can quickly themselves climbing at their very limit.

Routes up to Scottish grade IV I've found to approximate roughly to Scottish adjective grades in terms of difficulty. The ground is typically off-vertical and more prone to vegetation, which facilitates axe placements. The Tube is a difficult route to grade as the crux is short and steep and care is needed when transitioning back onto the slab above. It's probably a steady affair for anybody who has climbed routes at around grade C5 at Saltdean. 'Popular' routes, such as The Tube are also stepped-out, which helps matters.

Top of classic grade IV The Tube

From my limited experience grade V starts to feel ridiculously pumpy compared to the Scottish counterpart. The terrain is often steep, with limited features, and the chalk is harder, meaning more axe swings are needed to gain sufficient purchase. Maybe some of the routes have changed since their first ascent but generally speaking you won't read about Ian Parnell getting pumped on a V in Scotland as you do at Dover (see here). My ice climbing ability has improved since last visiting Dover but I'd casually suggest that some of the grade V routes are harder than WI5, and considerably harder and more serious than any Scottish V ice climb. Sadly I had no experience of the Dover VIs.

The top-out

A few things to be wary of when at the very top of a route...

Chalk cornices are a thing of nightmares. Chalk collapses from bottom up, sometimes creating a cornice at the very top of the route. It's really important to check for their presence as climbing through them could be close to impossible. Particularly given that the cliff directly beneath them may also be overhung and unstable. When a cornice exists it's best to avoid a route all together.

The top band of soil can also lead to a desperate exit. Often the chalk subsides in the last half metre and is replaced by earthy looseness. What's more the chalk leading up to this point can often be steep. I've found the best ploy has been to plant an axe over the top and sink it into the grass roots then throw and high leg and hope everything holds. This relies on a degree of hip flexibility of course!

Close to the top of Relax at Saltdean

Don't trust the small grassy ledges

I made this mistake and promptly fell 12m when a ledge peeled away beneath my feet. I at least demonstrated the strength of a well placed warthog in the process. Small grassy ledges can form on off-vertical cliffs from chalk debris drifting partly down the face before coming to rest. Grass seeds then germinate in this loose top surface. Appearances would suggest that these ledges offer an easy foot hold to relieve aching calves but often their bond with the more compact cliff is very weak. Sometimes these ledges will hold, sometimes they won't, but from experience there is little warning when they do give way underfoot.

Peeling vegetation underfoot whilst climbing Dover Soul

The Guidebook

The Climbers' Club Southern Sandstone guide covers the main south coast chalk venues. The Saltdean section is available online for free here, however many routes have changed or fallen down since its publication. The Dover section is comparatively simple, in that route descriptions and generally whereabouts are provided, however topos are absent. The majority of the routes have either the ϯ symbol to indicate no repeats, or ϯϯ to indicate major rockfall on the route. From experience it can be quite hard to match the guidebook descriptions to the cliff features, likely due to changes that have taken place. The TubeChannel Grooves and The Great Dover Experience are some obvious landmarks. Dry Ice had partly fallen down when last I visited a couple of years ago. After that it often gets a bit vague. The cycle of erosion of course means there are new route possibilities where old routes have been lost.

Tide Times

Dover is largely tidal, which adds to the level of seriousness and makes retreat a harder affair. Backing off from a route may well mean waiting a number of hours for the sea to suitably retreat. Note that the cliffs immediately east of the zigzag path quickly become cut off by the tide. Bare in mind the time needed to approach the routes and the slowness of climbing. An early morning start is highly advisable.

Tide tables are available here.

The tide rises quickly just East of the zigzag steps!
We needed to traverse this section above the waterline.


Information regarding general access and bird ban restrictions are detailed in the BMC Access database here.

Please abide by these restrictions as climbing at Dover is already a sensitive matter. The lack of climbers means that agreements with parties such as the National Trust or the RSBP are less likely to be reviewed as with other places and so a greater degree of personal responsibility and common sense is needed with regards general conduct. Whilst climbing is permitted it's sensible to keep a low profile as much as possible as climbing at Dover is not consider a 'normal' activity.

Also be aware that routes directly west of St. Margaret's Bay finish on private property (somebody's garden to be precise) so permission is best sought from the landowner in order to avoid possible access problems.

An unusual back drop drop for a climbing venue

Call the Coastguard

Finally! You may not get a TV crew gatecrashing a climb these days but the coastguard may still attempt to rescue you without your request if they are unaware that you are climbing. Be sure to ring them in advance. Also be aware that mobile signal can be poor once beneath the cliffs. Sometimes it's easier to pick-up a French network than it is a UK provider, and so it's best to call them from the car park if possible. They also like to be notified after you have finished the climb.

Sunrise over St. Margaret's Bay

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Øvredalsrenna, Hemsedal

The pressure to get something climbed on Sunday was on after the volume of food consumed Saturday night. Half a box of ice cream, a large tub of cottage cheese, and a skolebrød were the trimmings to the main course of tacos. The reason for so much consumption related to the total lack of energy and fatigue during Saturday. Grand plans made on Friday had whittled down to getting nothing done the following day. The battery felt flat midway through the walk-in and by the time we were under a route I was ready to leave. Didn't see that coming...

Sunday morning I didn't feel a huge deal better but then at 5am on a Sunday things rarely do. Clearly I hadn't recovered from the previous weekend. The basic plan was aim low, take the walk-in at a gentle pace, and hopefully reach the top of something before the battery ran flat again. The fine weather a major motivator for trying again. The low of -22 degrees on the car temperature gauge suggesting it would certainly be cold enough.

The walk-in, with friends heading to Skurvefjell
Entering Øvredalen

As it happened we got an excellent short route called Øvredalsrenna climbed. I had backed-off the start of this route the previous weekend due to its poor condition but sensed a further week would be enough to sufficiently improve things should we return. Reaching my previous high point of 5m was an easy affair given that the first 5m were now buried under a funnel of snow.

Øvredalsrenna (again)

The lower portion of the gully was filled with ice but the character of climbing remained very much mixed. Thrutchy, awkward and cramped. The thin streak of ice generally wide enough for one crampon, which made for some interesting bridging onto rock. At times the ice was particularly thin, for which my roughly sharpened mixed picks were ill-suited. There wasn't much in the way of solid rock protection but surprisingly some excellent screw placements. Also some not so good screws where the streak of ice became really narrow.

The start of Øvredalsrenna (again)

The guidebook described the difficulties slackening off after the initial climbing but in current early season state the challenging climbing kept coming. Below half height the ice quality had transformed into one of the worst of types. Poorly formed snowy ice suspended above unconsolidated powder. Ice just a few inches thick and useless for placing screws into. I kicked my feet into where this ice commenced and mounted it but quickly the top sheet deformed and then fell apart leaving my feet momentarily scrapping amongst powder for footing. The ice a little higher, where my axes were placed, was fortunately better but still required a some delicacy. Towards the the centre of the gully the ice was best for axes but at the edges I could easily punch foot holes through the top layer, which felt secure enough to weight bear.

One of the falling blocks, which had collapsed under my feet, had unfortunately hit Anna on the back of the hand. Evidently her belay wasn't out of the firing line. At first there was concern that it was broken but after a little pause things began to improve and she was able to enjoy the climb.

Gear wasn't great after the initial good ice. A poor screw in hollow ice. A number 1 nut that seemed resilient enough despite not looking so. I spent a long time trying to seat a large nut only for it lift once into the moves. Another nut sitting a little too shallow for comfort. Nothing totally reliable and everything fairly spaced from one another. Much of the rock was too compact. To be fair, I passed what looked to be a solid large cam placement but we had left all the cams to minimise weight. Just nuts, hexes and tricams.

The upper half of route was largely ice free, apart from the occasional thin covering on rock. The snow offered little help on steeper sections and in addition to this some large black holes were appearing through the snow beneath my feet. Fortunately I was able to patch these with the snow that I was sweeping from higher up. A couple of steep steps proved harder than anticipated. The poor snow forcing me to commit to some very fun mixed moves with a nice blend of solid hooks and holds more delicate. The route was probably all the better for this and very Scottish in character.

Anna climbing the second of two awkward steps

The steep, interesting climbing only lasted for around 60m. I looked to have just enough rope to exit the main gully but chose to make a belay just prior. Partly because this was the first decent rock gear that I had placed since near the base of the route and partly because I was unsure how soon a belay would present once onto easy ground. The final moves at the top of the route heralded bomber frozen turf at which point I knew I was home and dry.

The belay just below the top of the route

I needed to continue up the broad snow slope for maybe another 40m until a belay presented around some large boulders. Maybe this is what qualifies the route as being 100m but really the main climbing is just 60m.

Easy ground above the main climbing

I don't really have a feel for M-grades I will admit. Partly because the few M-graded routes that I have climbed have felt all over the place with regards to grade consistency. With my limited knowledge I would hint that this was hard for M3 in current conditions. It felt Scottish Tech 5. Arguably V,5 with the lack of good gear but possibly more like IV,5 with better ice and good neve in the upper half.

Thus I managed to finish a route this weekend... In fact once on the route I had felt quite fresh. We even set about continuing up and over Nibbi in order to return to the car but later changed tack upon seeing how the easy the descent back to our tracks in Øvredalen would be.

The descent back to Øvredalen (the long way)
Moonlit descent

A trip to the legevakt on route home confirmed fortunately no broken bones in Anna's hand.

Next weekend is going to be largely rest. The mixed routes on Skoghorn I imagine will have become a little too dry for my liking and there looks still to be limited options for ice yet. A few photos below to illustrate conditions from last Saturday. Probably a good opportunity for me to have break. Then full gas the following week with a bit of luck.

Skogshorn Saturday morning
Lanciakaminen looking dry

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Semi-winter conditions on Siluetten

Getting some proper winter conditions this weekend looked too be a marginal affair but Anna and me were more than keen to try our luck. Hemsedal the natural place to poke around in high places. On Saturday however I managed just 5m of climbing before backing off due to cruddy ice. The route in question being Øvredalsrenna in Øvredalen. The light trickle of water behind the bad ice meant that much of the ground also wasn't frozen sufficiently. Elsewhere nothing really looked in proper winter nick and so we retired to the local swimming baths to review our strategy for Sunday.

My 'high point' on Øvredalsrenna

The biggest incentive for sticking around on Sunday was the fine weather forecast. Clear skies and freezing temperatures expected, so potentially a good day to be in the hills. Both Skogshorn and Skurvefjell had looked to be in a semi-winter state on Saturday. Fresh snow had fallen through the late morning and early afternoon but temperatures felt barely freezing. The harder mixed lines on Skogshorn would need to wait if I wanted the full winter experience. Better to lower the bar and finish a route and get the season kick-started on a positive note. Siluetten was the natural choice as I suspected it would be climable in any condition.

We did half the approach with the cat from Ulsålstolen before it got bored. Or maybe it just didn't fancy the loose slippery rocks for the remainder of the climb. A thin coating of snow covered the slopes beneath the cliffs but the cliffs themselves were looked fairly bare. It felt suitably cold at least and the beautiful sunrise that greeted us suggested a fine day in store.

Approaching the route

The summer and winter guidebooks show a radically different line for Siluetten and so I presume the route has many variations. The line that we climbed lay midway between these two described variants.

The lower rock was largely free of snow, and so we were spared the need to unpack the crampons and axes. Just boots and gloves required. Our line up the initial buttress largely involved steep scrambling with the occasional harder move. A strong, chilly wind picked up at the top of the first pitch and encouraged us to traverse a little bit rightwards across broken ground to find some shelter. Fortunatly the wind soon abated for the remainder of the climb.

View towards the central buttress from low on the route

At roughly one third height greater snow coverage was causing the rock to become a little more slippery and so we donned crampons. A short chimney offered a thrutchy crux in such conditions. Particularly with a backpack to further cramp my space.

The awkward chimney

The climbing then became much easier and we were able to move together for the next 100-150m to where the final section of ridge began. The clean sections of rock were snow free but snow lying on the less steep and sheltered ground meant crampons were still of benefit. Our axes were just with us for the ride though. The sunny weather allowed a couple of moves without gloves but these needed to be replaced soon after. The requirement for crampons at least meant we could claim a 'mixed' ascent.

Close to the top of the route
The final section of ridge

We finished the route just after the sun had dipped out of sight and so without lingering we started our descent whilst twilight lasted. We made the error of descending down the Eastern slopes, believing this would be a romp. It had been in May, when many people were skiing the slope, but in November it proved time-consuming and needed both axes and crampons for some steeper sections. We should have used the Milarenna gully in hindsight, which neighboured our route.

Conditions in summary were more alpine than full winter. Worth noting that my idea of full winter mixed conditions is based on a Scottish algorithm consisting of frozen turf, hoar frosted rock, and a sporting amount of snow coverage. It's probably harder to get this full mix on a south facing cliff, where maybe a period of less than perfect weather is going to be needed for such conditions. Hopefully in the next few weeks I'll catch Skogshorn at the right moment to get a good tick in the bag.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Dry Tooling at Heggedal

The previous weekend had been a strong indicator that winter training should begin in earnest. I had managed just one rock route in two days due to wet rock. Ideally my winter preparation should have begun sooner but the fantastic autumn rock climbing conditions around Oslo and Drammen had prolonged my motivation for climbing in rock shoes.

Dry tooling hasn't really caught on in Norway and there is very little development. Heggedal looked the obvious place to start though. The local Drammen guidebook described it as a collection of ice and mixed crags but the simple topos suggested a handful of bolted routes might be possible without ice formation. I made further investigation with Anna and Stig.

We first visited a crag called Mullaveggen but the bolted routes here were under perpetual shower. How much this related to the overnight rain I don't know, however the cracked rock appeared otherwise ideal.

We moved on to another area called Buldreveggen. After a little searching along the base if the cliff we found the short wall containing three routes. They were vertical to slightly leaning, only about 6m high, but at least looked suitable to hang on axes. And dry.

We started with the awkward wide crack called Burka express, the easiest route on offer and graded M5. My onsight attempt proved an abysmal affair. Maybe futile in light of the amount of fallen leaves and dense moss that decked the upper half of the route. Much gardening amidst popping axes and skating crampons. Without lower-off bolts I topped-out onto soft forest slopes and delicately padded my way up the nearest tree.

With the route now cleared of vegetation we each practised it on top-rope. Quickly the moves linked together and after a couple of practise runs I cleaned it on lead. Some difficult footwork for M5 but I suspect the grade assumes presence of ice.

 Anna on Burka express
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)
Burka express on lead
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)

The opening route had naturally raised my guard and so the neighbouring M7, called Haken, I tried on top-rope from the outset. It felt in fact only a fraction harder but more pleasant. Strong hooks, interesting reachy moves, and a balancy layback off a torqued axe shaft towards the top. Topping-out without lower-off bolts felt an almost impossible affair with little purchase from the smooth final rock or forest bed. The lead attempt would need to wait until next visit though.

Pleasant footwork on Haken
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)
Midway up Haken
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)
That was all we had time for but the place certainly warranted a return as the short routes contained a fair number of moves of sustained difficulty for their height. "Grades" and "lower-offs" were probably the keywords to take away. Bringing some hardware to knock together a temporary lower-off seems a sensible approach and grades need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Den Hvite Stripa (n6), Andersnatten

I was more apprehensive about Den Hvite Stripa than any route for a long time. The crux pitch I understood to be very bold, with just a couple of bolts on the crux pitch and no possibility for supplementary gear. A bold n6 grade would probably equate to something like UK E2 5b, and so right on my limit. The lack of an adjective grade with the Nordic grading system meant this was just an educated guess though.

Den hvite stripa (the white stripe)

How big would the run-outs be?

Big enough to pass my belayer on the way down?

Where did the actual crux moves lie in relation to the bolts?

One thing I did know was that my slab climbing abilities had only slightly improved in recent years and so felt close to a plateau. Now or never.

I lost the paper, scissors, stone contest. 'Lost' in so far as my partner Sten would lead the first pitch leaving the crux second pitch to me.

The first pitch

Just mounting the short wall at the start of the second pitch in order to gain the slab seemed an ordeal. Where were the hand holds? Maybe it was the nervous anticipation of what was to follow. Some high crimps ultimately gave me the leverage to throw a high leg and rock over. How short people would manage I am not sure. Better technique maybe?

I had envisaged some heart-stopping, sweaty-palmed, marginal slab padding with too little friction to contemplate a reversal if things became a bit too spicy. The only way would likely be up. In reality things were much more steady. The rock was surprisingly featured with plenty of small crimps and only a few moves relying on blank slopers. Plenty of time to consider each move in turn. The three bolts were nicely spaced, with always a bolt to focus the attention upwards rather than worry about what lay below. The first bolt was easy to reach, and the third bolt spanned what was maybe the hardest section. The fist pump at the end of the pitch was as much about overcoming my personal fears as it was about the actual difficulties.

The crux second pitch

My personal opinion is that the technical difficulties of the pitch are at the easier end of n6. Maybe even n6-. As a comparison I would say Ich hatte viel bekummernis at Vardåsen is maybe a little harder and certainly has poorer protection low down. The pitch was certainly not 'bold', with the worst case scenario being some brief backward peddling. 'Gripping' would be a more appropriate word. Three bolts doesn't sound much but then the pitch is only around 20m. The lack of any truly bold routes in the general Oslo/Drammen area maybe makes this route a comparatively serious affair by local standards I guess. Or maybe it's boldness is just a thing of myth. Etive Slabs it is not.

The start of the n6- third pitch was protected by another bolt and contained a single move that was probably as hard as anything on the second pitch. Add to that the fear of blowing the onsight with a single unexpected slip... Then the difficulties eased back as the holds increased in size.

The third pitch

I had read little about the remaining pitches, although knew that the profile of the climb became steadily steeper. They were in fact a beautiful affair with big features needing athletic moves to link. My favourite sort of climbing. Perfect rock with with hardly any vegetation. Flakes, corners, small roofs, traverses, all a real joy with nothing massively hard.

Start of the fifth pitch

One thing worth pointing out is that the fourth pitch does not follow the roughly straight line shown in the latest Oslo guide. It is actually a big S-shape and so rope drag proved more of an issue than expected. The former Oslo guide actually shows the pitch in a truer form.

The top of the route brought to an end a fine adventure before an easy abseil down the neighbouring Den Svarte Stripa installed us back at our starting point. I'd say this is one of the best multipitch trad lines that I have climbed since arriving in Norway. The delicate slab pitches low down contrast beautifully with the more agile pitches higher up. I'd put it up there with Mot Sola, which is maybe slightly harder.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Via Lara, Hægefjell

My girlfriend Anna had undergone a SLAP tear repair in March. For those unfamiliar, this entails the ring of cartilage lining the shoulder socket being reattached. In Anna's case two thirds of this cartilage had become detached through a multitude of injuries over the years. Amazingly she had climbed her hardest ice pitch immediately prior to the operation.

Six months later her gradual recovery had reached a stage where she was ready to begin climbing again. We climbed Via Dolorosa, the easy slab climb at Vardåsen, a matter of hours after being given the green light to climb by her physio. It passed without drama and so Via Lara at Hægefjell seemed the suitable progression the coming weeekend. Another easy slab climb of no greater difficulty, only seven pitches instead of three.

Saturday's forcast was expected to be dry until around 7pm, meaning rain would affect only the BBQ rather than the climbing. Hægefjell's campsite lacked mobile signal though, so Friday evening's forecast was our last update.

Top of the second pitch - blue skies
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

Low on the route I noticed the winds were blowing from the south instead of the expected north. Dark clouds began to gather in the vicinity. Then at the top of the third pitch, midway up the route, it began to rain. Only lightly but the slabs caught every drop.

The fourth pitch was reportedly the hardest, and so with haste I pressed on, keen to complete it before the rock became slippery. Fortunately the climbing largely followed easy steps that were less reliant on friction. The cracked rock also meant plenty of opportunity for protection, meaning I could bypass all but the best gear placements for greater efficiency.

Anna climbing the third pitch

Anna hinted we try and abseil but the absence of in-situ anchors meant the easiest way off the route was via the top. One more pitch and the climbing would become easier still.

Water was soon flowing down the slabs either side of us, forming streams that were growing in size. There was the concern that our route could become awash but for the large part the water remained deep in the cracks. I made best effort to dry my soles at first but this soon became futile. In spite of the saturated nature of the rock there remianed enough friction on its easy angle.

Climbing in the rain near the top of the route

From the top of the route I made the traverse towards the nearby route of Reven. I had climbed this back in May and so was familiar with the abseil points. Abseiling proved a very wet affair, our belay plates wringing the rope as we descended. The first couple of abseils passed without trouble, apart from the occasional slip, but for the third abseil we needed to amend plans. The next abseil involved an angled descent via an overhang, for which there was the risk of penduluming in the event of a slip. Better to traverse the ledge that we were on to another route called Gone with the Weed, from where a more direct descent was possible. It meant an extra rope length but less potential for drama. Then back to Reven for the remaining abseils.

Our teeth were both chattering by the time we reached our bags. Clothes and gear soaked through. Plans of camping and climbing the following day now forgotten. A warm home was calling us.

Top of the route
Downward skating